Using new technology to study conditions for life in space

New advanced astronomical methods and instruments allow to study Earth-like planets in other solar systems, and to work out the nature and composition of their atmospheres. Using instruments developed in Uppsala and elsewhere, Nikolai Piskunov is searching for planetary systems resembling our own and for molecules essential to life.

In recent years it has become increasingly feasible to study exoplanets – planets orbiting stars other than our own sun. Piskunov is heading a three-pronged project studying exoplanets, focusing on those that resemble Earth.

The first two parts of the project are devoted to planetary systems around smaller stars that are not as bright as the Sun. The atmospheres of exoplanets will be studied using a new infrared spectrometer developed by researchers at Uppsala, in collaboration with engineers in Germany and Italy, that has been installed at a large telescope in Chile. It will be of particular interest if the project finds molecules of water, methane and ozone, since they play a key role in biological processes on Earth. The technology makes it possible to record temperature and pressure on the surface of exoplanets.

In the third part of the project, Piskunov and his research team will search for planetary systems that resemble our solar system. Using an automated telescope in the Canary Islands, between 50 and 60 sun-like starts will be monitored for 10 years, and their radial velocity, i.e. the speed they move in relation to us, will be recorded. This will enable the researchers to work out whether there are planets orbiting the stars.

Stars are affected by gravitational pull from their planets, just as the planets are affected by gravity from the star. The difference is that small planets are impacted much more, whereas the movement of the large star may be disrupted by as little as a meter per second.

Last modified: 2023-03-21